(Not) Defining the damn thing

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“I like to think there are more fruitful communal pursuits, such as finding better ways to market ourselves, organizing ever more outstanding conferences, and setting up local professional groups for networking and commiserating.”Discussions of how we should label ourselves and define our work are like flu epidemics. They break out from time to time, follow a fairly predictable course, and often make us want to barf.

I’m not saying that such discussions aren’t worthwhile. Testing our self-labels can be useful. For example, we may learn that the working definition of interaction design has changed substantially over the past five years. Or the European and North American definitions of information design differ more than we realized.

But these discussions draw off an incredible amount of creative energy from a brilliant community of thinkers and practitioners. I like to think there are more fruitful communal pursuits, such as finding better ways to market ourselves, organizing ever more outstanding conferences, and setting up local professional groups for networking and commiserating.

Worse, these discussions are ultimately pointless if we hope to determine singular labels and definitions. That’s not how language typically works anyway; synonyms and homonyms exist for a reason. Context ultimately determines what our labels and definitions mean, but all too often these discussions take place in the same context over and over again via a handful of discussion lists. In this context, we’re simply talking to ourselves, and we run the risk of monoculturing how we describe ourselves and define our work.

So I’d like to suggest that we introduce the following basic issues into future discussions of labels and definitions, wherever and whenever they may take place:

  • What exactly are we trying to label and define? The field? The profession? The practice? The practitioner? The community? The methodology? The deliverable? These are not one and the same thing.
  • Who is the audience for our labels and definitions? Each other? Co-workers? Customers? The web industry? The broader world? One’s grandparents? Different audiences necessitate different labels and definitions.

Does this seem obvious? I’m sure to many of you it does. Of course, common sense is always all too uncommon.

Do you think that singular labels and definitions are feasible and practical? Then try responding to these questions to see if you use the same answer for each question:

Self-test of labels

  • What’s your job title?
  • What would your ideal job title be?
  • How would you label what you actually do at work?
  • How would your teammates/colleagues label what you do at work?
  • How would your manager label what you do at work?
  • When you attend an established professional association’s conference, how do you label what you do?
  • When you attend a conference of practitioners, how do you label what you do?
  • How do your closest professional peers label themselves?
  • When you are selling your services to a potential client, how do you label what you do?
  • If a reporter happened to interview you on the street, how would you label yourself?
  • What do you tell your uncle or grandmother you do for a living?

Self-test of definitions

  • How do you define your field?
  • Is your definition different than it was two years ago?
  • How do the people you work with define it?
  • How does your manager define it?
  • How is it defined by your professional association?
  • How is it defined in academia?
  • How do the analyst firms define it?
  • How do the marketing departments of your industry’s big players define it?
  • Are there different definitions out there that you’d consider valid?

Labels and definitions inevitably vary from context to context. But is it unethical to consciously provide different answers to the same questions? No, but it is a bit two-faced and can sometimes make one feel a bit uncomfortable. Just remember: we’re always speaking different languages in different contexts. It’s simply a requirement for effective communication.

For example, if a prospective client asks me what I do, I couch my response in the language of solutions to her problems, rather than waste her time with a term such as “information architecture,” which she might find meaningless, jargony, or pretentious. If I’m talking with an old friend of my dad’s, I might say I’m a web designer; that’s all the other person really wants to know, and he’s probably had too many martinis to care enough to learn more. Regardless, I’m still the same person, I still do the same work, and I’m still just as committed to my field.

So let’s pick the best labels and definitions to get us over whatever conversational pickle we find ourselves in and look for opportunities to educate afterward. This approach should work well for information architects, experience designers, knowledge managers, interaction designers, usability engineers, CRM specialists, information designers, content managers, user experience specialists, or whatever we’re calling ourselves…at the moment.

Louis Rosenfeld is an independent information architecture consultant.


  1. Hi Lou,

    I used to have the job title of Information Architect and I loved it. Trouble was, no one knew what it was or what it meant or what I did.

    I now work for a different company, doing similar work but my title is Content Editor. I’m simply a web person who knows all about content, usability, IA and stuff. I’m not bothered about the job title anymore – I’m more interested in people knowing that my skillset includes information architecture. Or, in their terms, that I can make it easy to find stuff on our website. As long as they know that they should consult me when they need my help (and they know when it’s time to ask for help) then I’m happy.

    I never liked the term Web Designer (the, admittedly unambiguous, term that Nick Finck from digital Web Magazine (http://www.digital-web.com/) prefers to use – it throws up images of snowboarding, bleached-blonde-haired cool dudes who say “whoah” all the time. But I still design sites.

    When people ask what I do, I tell them “I work on my company’s website, making it easy to use and interesting”. They understand that as it’s not too techy and it’s not too designery.

    So, in my opinion, the biggest problem associated with our attempts to define and redefine our profession is that we risk alienating the people who should really be understanding what we are capable of doing. Our employers, our clients, our bosses and our colleagues must know what our job titles mean and what our skills can produce. If that doesn’t happen, we will all be sitting at home with cool job titles but no work.

  2. Excellent points, Lou. Unfortunately, I can’t find one I disagree with. 🙂 Your article proves that “one good analogy is worth three hours discussion”, although in this case, it’s a list of questions, not an analogy.

    What I find most valuable when I get together with a group of peers is focusing on the common struggle. Focusing on differences, definitions and labels only seems to confuse folks, or worse, alienate them.

    “I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.”
    – Dudley Field Malone

    Croc O’ Lyle

  3. As someone who usually revells in these debates, I want to point out some jobs that are completely unambiguous and everyone knows what the person does as soon as you say the one word title. I will say that these are generalist terms (which contradicts other things I have said here on b&a and elsewhere, but when I think about them now it begins to push me in that direction. Anyway here is the list:
    Doctor, lawyer, nurse, architect, pilot, congressperson, dentist, etc.

    I think it is for something like this that I am striving for in my need for title. I want in one word to be able to convey to the largest layperson audience what it is I do.

    Then within our little group we have specializations.

    For the lay people I’m a user experience designer. For all you I’m an interaction designer.

    Maybe this is how we should start thinking of ourselves. It’s like going back to school and saying I am an anthropology major with a concentration in culture & personality. (that’s what I was, btw). So I would say I’m a user experience designer who specializes in interaction design.

    Another reason this title thing is important is b/c as Lou said one of the great duties ahead of us is branding. Never met a brand that didn’t have a name associated with it at some level. Yes the name might not be the primary focus of a brand, but since brand is so much influenced by person to person x-communication, that communication has to be in some language that can convey a lot of meaning in a short spurt of syllables. There are so few “Artists formerly known as Princes” out there who can make their symbol into a name (of course I still had to say AFKAP to let you know who I was talking about).

    Well, no matter how annoying everyone else thinks it is, I do think that until we nail this thing that we do down somehow, even if it is a moving target we are going to have a hard time in the following areas:
    selling ourselves
    educating ourselves
    organizing ourselves
    And just doing our jobs day to day b/c of the lack of understanding that our peers have w/ what we do.

    — dave

  4. Last Week, Mark Hurst wrote a related article in Good Experience, and I made some comments to Mark that I posted in my weblog. believe they are very relevant to this topic, so I’ll post here an excerpt:


  5. However, I believe that most user experience professionals take a wrong approach when explaining their jobs. I wrote this to Mark today, inspired by the well known USP concept and the original audio logo concept I learnt from Robert Middleton:

    “There have always been a lot of concern about the title for user experience professionals. I heartedly agree with your saying: who cares about the title? It’s important, however, that they CARE about what we can do and that they are certain that we can help them. If someone asks “what do you do”, “what is your job”, we’re dead if we answer with a generic description of our title. “I’m an usability professional”, “I’m an information architect” or whatever.”

    “We should take a marketing approach when explaining what we do. We must explain the benefit we provide, so our listener really cares about what we do.”

    “For example, instead of saying: “I’m an information architect” we could say “I help my company to save tons of resources in support calls” “I generate new leads and revenues for my customers via their websites”, etc.

    “Their answer could be “how do you do that”, and then you could explain in more detail. They CARE now, do you see? I’ve tried this dozens of times and, believe me, it works, not only for promoting my business but when evangelizing within a organization I’m already working with.”

  6. Well, if these discussions are like the flu and make people want to barf, I guess that makes me Typhoid Mary.

    My question is this: Are these discussions *really* drawing off incredible amounts of energy that would actually be utilized more effectively if the discussions weren’t held? Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that participating in discussions via lists and weblogs *don’t* require lots of energy…especially compared to big ticket items like organizing conferences and setting up local network groups.

    Given this, I think it’s more appropriate to view these discussions as more of a symptom than a cause. The state of UX/ED/IA/ID has some scary similarities to the California run-off election…every time you turn around, there’s a new candidate. And unfortunately, we don’t have a deadline by which one of them will emerge the winner!

  7. Lou,

    Thanks for pointing out (as others have already done) and encouraging all to move on to focusing on issues more important than our titles!

  8. Louis, out of interest was this inspired by Tog’s comments: http://www.asktog.com/columns/057ItsTimeWeGotRespect.html ?

    I sympathise but disagree with both views.

    When people start drawing their wagons together in this way they’ll have difficulty moving onwards.

    The vexing thing is that we are too young as a profession to start defining ourselves so precisely. Should we yet dare to assume that this discipline is fully formed? Do a few conferences, some great discussion boards and one or two inspiring books make a vocation?

    We’re still using big fat crayons to mark the blueprints others will follow in years to come. The explorations and discoveries we hopefully make, are the crayola of our working day.

    Think about the auto industry when that was starting out, they must have had very similar dialogue…

    “I build cars”
    “No, you design motor vehicles”
    “Actually you both create elegant transport solutions for horseless carriage manufacturers”

    “OK, so what do the engineers do?”

  9. Nice comparison Brendan. I wonder if anyone back then called themselves a “Transportation Architect”?

    I am another Information Architect who speaks my title with chagrin and wouldn’t miss it.

  10. Hi All

    Louis, you are lacking a self-question that IMHO could be useful. It might be formulated like this:
    “When you are seeking a job, what words do you look for?”
    This might define the profession in terms of the other people, those willing to pay for the services.

    Dave Heller lists some unambiguous jobs like for example “lawyer”.
    Those profession names are unambiguous because their definitions settled after so many years.
    Settled in the society, not in the professional associations or the ACM forums.
    Anyway, “lawyer” is still ambiguous. It may be applied to a judge or a senator or a crow or so many other different flavours of the profession.

    IMHO the professions Louis wrote about are specializations of a more general “systems design” profession. Hold on: I’ll try to explain.

    Usability is not an option, period. You can’t build anything without usability at all.
    Every development (web site, computer program, interactive device, you name it) has “usability”. High or low, it has one.

    The same as some lawyers have started to consider human rights into their work, some systems developers are considering usability or IA or (you name it) into their designs.
    It’s not that humans didn’t have rights before Carter, it’s that they didn’t have a name or were regarded as a given you shouldn’t care for.
    The same for usability & co.
    As I see it, it must be an integral part of the profession.
    Then, we who care can specialize ad nauseam into our preferred facet.


    PD: I think that every user has an udeniable and natural right to operate programs in a humanly shape.

  11. 1) What is it that you do?
    2) What knowledge and experience is required for what you do?
    3) What knowledge, experience, skills, etc do you have in common with those you see as peers?

    If you can answer all three, then a label for yourself and your peers means something, specifically it is a label for people who share the common knowledge, experience, skills, etc. that you’ve identified. Otherwise, the label is meaningless and/or a con.

  12. Lou – i’m glad you’re not saying “don’t discuss this anymore” but rather “qualify your discussions” (at least I think thats what you’re saying).

    Hear about the Cobler whose children never had any shoes? 😉

    – Richard

  13. Hi everybody!

    I totally agree with Brendan and Juan and I like the comparisons.

    It looks like all the IAs are forgetting the fact that the language is a living thing – it changes and evolvs over the time and it is closely related with the changes and development of the society. Some 15 to 10 years ago nobody knew about the web and the title web designer meant nothing. Nowadays people know and talk about the web and the society has accepted web designers. But it looks like it’s not ready yet to accept all the different specialized professions which have evolved in these years. Be patient and accept the fact that all the professions and it’s titles were once at that stage.

    But don’t forget that all these discusions about the titles and stuff are also part of the evolution of the language and society… Right?


  14. I think much of this issue stems from the fact that we’re human. I’ve read many of the posts relating to this discussion (here and elsewhere) and it always seems to revolve around our human “need’ to define ourselves.

    What’s in a name? Well, if a name is content (it is), then we have to consider the first rule of content creation — Know thy audience! That said, I write different content for different audiences (based on educational level, time constraints, culture, etc.), so I feel free to call myself by whatever title that makes the most sense to my audience.

  15. “What exactly are we trying to label and define?”

    The field. That is the most important, and the most needed right now. Once that is done, then define the distinctions in the field.

    I call the field Product Design or more specifically, High-Tech Product Design. I call the three main aspects of High-Tech Product Deisgn: Visual Design, Information Design and Interaction Design.

    “Who is the audience for our labels and definitions?”

    Our co-workers or people who pull the purses strings inside corporations to fund our existence.

    The problem with the discussions are as you point out, not qualified about why the discussions are occuring. When people talk to me about why there should be a need to create labels, I always answer for the above reasons.

    It’s a business thing. Discussions otherwise are probalby pretty meaningless, but they are not meaningless when you are trying to get the money you need to pay for projects, resources, and people inside the walls of corporate America.


  16. Hi Again,

    After having read “Don’t look it up” I’d rather now rush to see if “UXA” made it into last Merriam-Webster Collegiate!

    But this is about language and we have to provide content.
    The (many) names of our professions might be included in the dictionary, but will they settle in our culture?
    We can’t ask the masses to identify the meaning of while still many IT managers haven’t had a notice about the venerable “usability”.

    Instead of fighting for the ownership of a preferred profession name, let’s make that profession shine and then the society will name it.
    That moment a group of professionals doing something somehow different will be struggling for the next version of the title.

    We could get a completely new name, like for example “BETAs” (“after a famous web site ‘Boxes ET Arrows’ founded in the beginnings of this century” according to Merrian-webster #gazillion edition).

    In Argentina we say “En la cancha se ven los pingos”. “En la cancha” is there where horses race, “pingo” is the familiar gaucho word for a horse with a nuance of affection, and the phrase means something about evaluating by the results.

    I’d also like to point out that this that Lou Rosenfeld started is not a discussion but a meta-discussion (a discussion on the discussion) about defining the holy thing, isn’t it?


  17. The article “Beating the software blues” mentioned by Bernard Chen points out the general problem of the lack of usability in so many software pieces, both for public release and for internal use of the developing companies.

    The same concept, albeit deeper, was expressed in Mitchell Kapor’s “The Software Design Manifesto”
    by 1990.

    After so many years now much more developers than then are releasing much more software than then, supported by enhanced dev tools.
    What have we done during all that time?
    Both articles whine, none offers a solution.

    During the nineties the idea that productivity will grow by implementing more and more IT stuff provoked a race situation that led to absurd outcomes like for example the internet bubble, the paradigm of the lack of usability. The interns commanding the asylum at it’s most.

    So many millions of dollars blithely burned on the altar of the IT deities.
    The number is near 3700 billion dollars (yes, “b”). This number stopped the race. Funds (fuel) came to an end and now management is more careful.

    Well, this is THE OPPORTUNITY for our proffesion.

    It’s about usability’s usability.
    As Bernard point out, we all know when we need a medical doctor and also know how to get those services, right?
    Yes, we are at a point named “got funny bump on the arm”. It’s clear where dowe want to move from here (“No funny bump”), and in order to go there it’s also clear the actions needed (“call doctor|go hospital”).
    Recognize the steps? Same as in a usability cognocitive walkthru.
    MD’s have implemented usability for their professional services!

    We have not and this is our problem. How can it be that there are so many IT managers still unaware?

    To solve this problem let’s beat media, let’s make our capabilities public, let’s stop discussing among us.

    For example Boxes and Arrows. It’s an excellent place for internal consumption. Is there a site about for “the other people”?
    I don’t think so. Not even NCA’s.

    We should have a site about our professión but for external consumption, aimed at our users. For example http://theProgramInterface.com or maybe .org.
    Who are our users? Our users are all those IT managers that need (even if they dont’t know it yet) our science and experience.

    A place with forums where to answer questions like “We are rolling a new system an users reject it …” or “How expensive usability is?”.

    A place qhere to showase all techniques, whether you like a particular one or not. Expert inspection, user testing, log analysis, cogno walthru, use cases, usage-centered design, OVID, you-name-it.

    A place where to publish success stories, or before-after stories. Both big and small cases. Specially small ones.

    By observing http://www.upassoc.org/ you will immediatly notice the contradiction. The moto at the top says “promoting usability concepts ans techniques worldwide”, but in their statement you’ll read “reaching out to people who act as advocates for usability”, aka those who are already convinced.
    IMHO people who act as advocates for usability are to quarrel about titles. But the target are those who are still not.

    Finally, let me show you hit I see our ultimate target:

    Juan Lanus

  18. Hi all, thanks for the comments! Just catching up from a few weeks on the road, and I don’t know when I’ll get to comment on all these comments. Shee-it, we are a verbose bunch, ain’t we? 😉

    Anyway, for now I’ll leave you with this wonderfully relevant URL, courtesy of Molly Steenson and Mike “the K” Kuniavsky: http://www.girlwonder.com/jobs.html

  19. I want to add a comment to reinforce my idea that usability-related issues are not penetrating enough the general software development levels.
    This link:
    points to Evans Data, the company that defines itself so: “Evans Data Corp delivers fresh data and analysis, identifying the technology use and trends that drive informed successful product and IT management decisions.”

    They have a panel of several hundred developers and run statistics every other quarter about what are they doing and how. Their studies are respected by companies like IBM for example.
    What the developers answer is seen by the managers.

    The linked page is the TOC of their “North American Development Survey” as of 2003.
    The absence of the word “usability” is notorious in this cohempresive list.
    After a careful read of all items I couldn’t find traces of somehing related to us.

    I don’t have access to the information they sell, have only seen part of it in IBM conferences.
    But I was offered to join the panel and saw the questionnaire. There is nothing about usability.
    In my feedback I suggested that they add some questions, at least a general one like “are usability issues considered …” but got no answer. This was more than one year ago.

    IMHO this is where we must push the profession into: the kitchen of every software development effort, at it’s birth.

    Juan Lanus

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